Reinventing Deli and Fresh Prepared for Post-COVID

May 18, 2020

Ideas for boosting sales as shoppers warm back up to hot bars and shared spoons

By Jim Dudlicek, Director of Communications and External Affairs

The bright light that was grocery store prepared foods and in-store dining was suddenly extinguished by the COVID-19 pandemic, and only time will tell if and when it will be relit.

Meanwhile, there are opportunities for grocers to fill the void and keep the deli a profitable perimeter destination.

As shoppers kicked into survival mode, especially in the early days of the crisis, they breathed new life into center store, embracing the comfort and shelf stability of canned and boxed foods, along with frozen products, pizzas in particular. Meanwhile, the plexiglass barriers on salad and hot bars were no match for consumer concerns over spreading the coronavirus, leading them to forsake selections like self-serve entrees and service deli items like salads and cut-to-order meats.

“There is demand for time-saving, convenient solutions, but engagement with deli-prepared remains low,” the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association confirmed in its COVID-19 impact report.

A sudden surge in online shopping for delivery or curbside pickup also took its toll in the perimeter. “As shoppers increasingly try to reduce the number of trips to the store and engage in online ordering, deli-prepared food sales were down 36.3% with volume off 34.8%,” the IDDBA reported noted. “Sales were off for all offerings and meal occasions, whether breakfast items, combo meals, trays or deli pizza.”

How can grocers offset these losses while still asserting their culinary chops?

Grab and go: Empty salad and hot bars don’t generate revenue. Convert them into grab-and-go centers stocked with entrees, sides, salads, soups and sandwiches – all of your chefs’ specialties, packaged for minimal contact. This might also be a good spot to merchandise some of those foodservice products being made available to grocers.

Partner with local restaurants: Foodservice is hurting, especially independent eateries forced to offer takeout to survive. Some of these places may be local institutions. You may have hired some of their folks to handle your additional crisis traffic – why not offer some of their specialties as well? Take a page from the playbook of Rouses Markets in Louisiana, which is partnering with some of New Orleans’ landmark restaurants to sell their classic dishes in a heat-and-eat format.

Almost cut to order: Shoppers are shirking the service deli for packaged meats and cheeses. But even pre-crisis, grocers were getting traction on pre-sliced deli items to avoid waiting at the counter. Keep up that momentum, but offer additional varieties in smaller portion sizes for smaller households and to encourage experimentation. While your cheesemonger is idle, why not try it with a few specialty cheeses as well?

Cater to consumers’ changing needs: Your catering orders are down and you’re taking a big hit losing out on special occasions. Retool catering solutions for a grab-and-go format – turn meal kits into party kits, from full meals to charcuterie and cheese trays for entertaining (within local gathering restrictions, of course), and complementary accessories.

Don’t let them forget: Whatever you do, make sure shoppers remember what you do best, whatever the format currently made necessary. The IDDBA report concluded: “Making sure that deli-prepared offerings, whether pre-packaged or made-to-order, are on the radar is crucial for everyday solutions.”

Communication is key – listen to your shoppers, they’ll tell you what they want. Independent grocers are better than anyone at knowing their customers and how to solve their meal solution needs.